Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Time For ESPN To Make The Donuts


There has rarely been a week like this for ESPN. The normal stick-and-ball sports that dominate ESPN on a daily basis are about to be "one-upped" by what many in Bristol, CT believe is not a sport at all.

After more than five years, the top level of NASCAR racing returns to ESPN. While the network may believe it is more important than many things, there is absolutely no doubt that ESPN is dwarfed by NASCAR racing.

This sport has flourished in its time away from the network, and this success will be the "measuring stick" by which NASCAR fans will judge ESPN's efforts for the next four months.

Simply put, its time for ESPN to make the donuts. Six months of hard work, practice and rehearsals behind-the-scenes have set the stage for one key day in the history of this network. Make no mistake, Sunday is huge for the entire ESPN/ABC/Disney corporation.

While ESPN is confident in College Gameday, confident in Monday Night Football, and very confident in SportsCenter, the entire network is about to be put under a level of scrutiny that many at the company have never experienced before.

NASCAR racing was ill-served by NBC Sports. This group of arrogant New Yorkers made it clear from the start that NASCAR was a "fill-in" for their loss of the NFL, and they would be exiting from NASCAR "as soon as possible." That was told to me in-person back at their first race in Homestead. These were not racing guys.

NBC paid the same level of service to NASCAR that TNT recently did in their disastrous and self-serving "summer replacement" tour. That my friends, was lip service. NBC fled back to Manhattan as soon as possible and the sport is better-off without them. TNT's website has eliminated all mention of NASCAR, and on the Turner-owned NASCAR.com site, the TNT page sits...frozen in time.

Now, ESPN steps-in with a full six months of solid Busch Series action under their belts. They move from the relative obscurity of Saturdays to the white hot spotlight of NEXTEL Cup at a key time in the history of the sport.

Fans have high hopes for the continued good chemistry of Dr. Jerry Punch, Rusty Wallace, and Andy Petree. The pit reporters have been just fine, with Allen Bestwick and Mike Massaro being the heavy-hitters in experience. ESPN's team calling the on-track action has a great opportunity to be very good this season. Like him or not, Rusty is always excited and gets across a vibe of energy that sometimes requires Petree to get things back on an even keel.

What fans dread most is ESPN doing to NASCAR what they have done to The Indy 500. These days, there is so much extraneous "TV junk" built around the race that it seems the on-track activity is actually a relief for the viewer.

From bad "TV hosts" to rock bands playing to awkward tear-jerking driver profiles, the network loses so much credibility that you somehow expect the play-by-play announcer to begin with an apology to race fans.

ESPN has already told us that for some unknown reason, Brent Musburger will be "the telecast host" at The Brickyard 400. They have already told us that NASCAR newcomer Suzy Kolber and the struggling Brad Daugherty will handle both the complete pre-race show and the in-race "Infield Studio" segments. Back in the Bristol, CT studio, they are continuing to use the "mis-cast" Erik Kuselias as ESPN's "daily national face of NASCAR."

This week, Kuselias has already done the Monday and Tuesday NASCAR Now shows. Aside from the credible news items from the non-Bristol based reporters, both shows were horrible. This gentleman is just lost.

Imagine asking Bobby Labonte how he would race his brother Terry at The Brickyard 400 if it came down to the "last couple of laps" for the win. As Kuselias would say, "are you kidding me?" These brothers are both multi-millionaires with twenty plus years each of NASCAR history under their belts. Just once this season, maybe some normally polite NASCAR driver will just answer back, "you're kind of a jerk, did you know that?"

Kuselias was once a lawyer from Hamden, CT who wanted to get into sports radio. Now he finds himself being handed the keys to the most high-profile NASCAR program on American television. While he has "skated" for six months amid the confusion and chaos of this program, he will skate no more after Monday, July 30th.

By that day, the network will have covered the Busch Race from ORP, and The Brickyard 400. NASCAR Now will instantly become the center of attention as the sole source of information about ESPN's own races. Fans will expect much more from this program than the single reporter "stringer" style coverage of NEXTEL Cup that the show has offered this far.

If "ESPN General Assignment" reporters David Amber or Wendy Nix appear simply to "wrap-up" the Brickyard 400 for Monday's NASCAR Now, heads should roll in Bristol. For the next four months, the faces on NASCAR Now should be ESPN's own "faces" at the track.

NASCAR Now has completely fumbled ESPN's coverage of the Busch Series this season, simply because they were mesmerized by NEXTEL Cup. As noted in earlier Daly Planet columns, they actually refused to run Busch highlights on Mondays because the race was "back on Saturday." Veteran race fans had to be helped-up from the floor after seeing this naive approach to racing.

So, this week ESPN will air sixty-six hours of NASCAR, comprised mostly of the excellent Ultimate NASCAR series. Then, the Busch race at ORP will serve as the warm-up for the big day. The main course will be served with Sunday morning's NASCAR Now, then the NASCAR Countdown pre-race show and finally The Brickyard 400.

From Fox Sports to TNT, the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup TV package has seen its highs and lows this season. Now, ESPN takes the helm to steer this ship all the way into port in November. As we build toward the weekend, there will no doubt be more information to discuss, and more opinions to read.

Please feel free to add your opinion of ESPN's coverage to The Daly Planet anytime. There will be a new column available for your comments every day through November. It should be interesting.

The Daly Planet welcomes comments from readers. Simply click on the COMMENTS button below, or email editor@thedalyplanet.tv if you wish not to be published. Rules for comments are posted on the right-hand side of the homepage. Thanks again for stopping by.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have very little hope for NASCAR Now with Eric K after his "hype" performances the past 2 days with Carl Edwards' dislocated thumb. All Eric has said since it happened is "Will Carl still be able to win the Busch Championship?" Carl is "still supposed" to race this weekend,as if his thumb may fall off at any moment. Erik has no idea that drivers race with all types of injuries, many that are worse than this, all the time. But that doesn't matter to him, he just hypes up the fact that Carl is hurt.

Not only that, but he is just unable to ask unscripted follow-up questions. During the breaking Ginn Racing merger news, since Erik couldn't think of any questions to ask David Newton (like about Regan Smith, the 8 car for 08) he just asked questions and forced David repeat answers that had already been given 60 seconds before. Erik is just getting worse and worse.

projectpappy09 said...

Watching NASCAR Now take the place of Around the Horn for a week, it is almost startling to see how similar the show is as others in the same format. ESPN is becoming a shell of its former self very fast.

As for the NASCAR coverage, the extremely poor NASCAR Now episodes this week seem to be canceled out by the awesome Ultimate NASCAR series, which may be the best documentary-style work on NASCAR I have ever seen.

jfs-va said...

When you write "The normal stick-and-ball sports that dominate ESPN on a daily basis", what sports(plural) are you referring to besides baseball? Is football considered a stick and ball sport?
Also, the term "stick and ball" comes across as a slight dig at a sport like baseball. Perhaps you don't mean it that way, but maybe it would be best to respect the "stick and ball" games and those who love them just like you would want people to respect NASCAR as a sport.

Daly Planet Editor said...

jfs-va,

You make a great point. At ESPN, sports are divided into "stick and ball" and then the rest. This includes MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL as well as college football and hoop.

Since the network began, the non-stick and ball sports always had to struggle. Once NASCAR left the network about seven years ago, it virtually disappeared from the radar screen at ESPN.

Now, the struggle is to slide in a major sport that will take thousands of man hours and hundreds of on-air hours into an established network that was doing just fine without it. That is my only reference.

I have been the Director Of Production for a major network, and I assure you that I enjoy both pro and college sports just as much as NASCAR. The stick-and-ball is only a quick way to reference a large body of sports that dominates the ESPN airwaves. Thanksk again for your comment.

Joe from Philly said...

jfs-va,

"stick and ball" is a common term for games using sticks (baseball and hockey) and balls (football and basketball) and I really don't see it as a dig at all.

When ESPN isn't obsessed with their own original content silliness, they exist to cover "stick and ball" sports.

For instance, if you are a fan of anything other than football, baseball or basketball, would you watch SportsCenter to get info on that sport? Doubt it.

Not a dig at the sports in question here in my opinion. More on the focus in Bristol CT. And still not a "dig" unless ESPN tries to cover Nascar as they do the other sports. Then they'll have problems as they are different. Different sport different fan base etc.

It's a mistake in any line of work to assume every product/customer/employee can be treated the same way.

Tim said...

I knew you would be ranting about "NASCAR Now" at some point this week since we agree on almost everything when it comes to TV coverage. The hype over "can carl win the CUP title" knowing full well he was going to run both races this weekend was actually funny. But the best part came when Kuselias referred to USAC as the U S A C series. I have NEVER heard a TV person not pronounce that series by the 4 separate letters. It just proves how terrible he is. I would love to see someone like Stewart or Harvick on the show (probably via telephone on TV like all of the other terrible interviews) and have them just start yelling at Kuselias for being clueless.

Tripp said...

How bad are things... really?

ESPN, the 800 pound gorilla of sports broadcasting, has been passed the torch of the top NASCAR series and has invested many millions of dollars in air talent and programming. The vast majority of that money translates into quality product lighting up TV screens of the NASCAR nation.

Breaking down the coverage by type thus far through the season, ESPN have delivered Busch series race telecasts that have been universally good and sometimes very good with informative and entertaining talent, quality camera work and direction, and they even show the top finishers as they cross the line.

ESPN's standalone feature programming has shown sparks of brilliance, especially in this week's "Ultimate NASCAR" series. They tell the sport's history, both near and distant with a very deft touch and occasionally beautiful photography. Even the most knowledgeable fan will come away from these programs with new insight into the sport and new appreciation for the deep history within.

That leaves ESPN's NASCAR news programming, "NASCAR Now". At best, it can be informative and insightful. At worst, it's the boil on the backside of NASCAR broadcasting, drowning in hype and trying to create controversy where none exists. Fortunately for the fan, there are other wells from which to drink. Speed TV and Sirius NASCAR radio offer a constant stream while the Web has no lack of legitimate news sites for the fan to surf for quality and factual reporting. It is ironic that ESPN's poorest product exist in the segment where they have the most competition.

So overall, in the words of that old 70's Top 40 tune, "Two out of three ain't bad." With Jerry, Andy and Rusty taking over the big chairs, ESPN is moving Marty Reid and Randy LaJoie in to cover the Busch races. This could be good. Reid is a solid veteran, anchoring years of Indy car broadcasts, and LaJoie has no lack of knowledge and personality as evidenced by his stints co-hosting Sirius' "The Driver's Seat". It will be interesting to watch.

It can be argued that ESPN has incrementally raised the bar in areas of NASCAR coverage both on and off the track. Where they haven't, "NASCAR Now", the best way to incite change is to vote with the remote. Don't watch. Ratings rule and shows without viewers must change or be replaced.

One may carp about components of ESPN's coverage, but they did not become "the worldwide leader" in sports broadcasting by putting out sub-par product. Expect what is broken to be fixed, or at least changed in the months to come.

Brian said...

I give up, I really do. ESPN is really just that hopeless. It's like they make progress in the second half of the week have Ryan Burr on, which they did. Then it's back to step 1, with Eric K. back Monday and Tuesday.

The Bobby Labonte interview was so painful I just turned the show off, and went and did something else.

Really a shame they don't seem to care about anyone out here. Ryan Burr, Allen Bestwick bring so much potential to the show.

That's a shame ESPN, shame, shame....

Joe from Philly said...

Tripp brings up a good point.

It's easy to bitch about the bad sometimes hard to give kudos because you're still ticked at the bad stuff.....

I have watched a couple of hours of the Ultimate NASCAR program so far. I'm recording them on my DVR for the rest of the week as they have been outstanding. They really give you hope that the folks at ESPN get it. So far, it was been an excellent show.

I have to thank David Poole for pointing them out on his radio show since I don't watch ESPN much and didn't know about them.

Well done and Kudos to everyone at ESPN involved in that show!!!

Richard in NC said...

A show as BAD as NASCAR NOW with Erik K can ONLY stay on ESPN this long if upper manglement at ESPN wants it. NASCAR NOW with Erik K is a continuing insult to NASCAR and racing fans and is just another indication of the arrogant, insular attitude growing at ESPN. No wonder Dan Patrick is jumping ship for another radio gig.

jfs-va said...

Thanks for clarifying the stick and ball reference. I've been a sports fan for probably thirty years and honestly never heard the term much nor knew what it meant. Now I understand....thanks.

Anonymous said...

The absolute worst part of ESPN's coverage is to hear Stuart Scott do highlights for a race on Sunday night SportsCenter. "This pit stop was bananas!" "Jeff Gordon just said "Boo Yah" as he passed Tony Stewart" etc. Absolutely disgusting.

Anonymous said...

I currently run an ESPN Radio affiliate station, and while I will not miss Dan Patrick's show (name dropper, talks down to the listener), I was not happy when Eric K gave up his show for NASCAR Now. I agree, he's not very good at it and needs to return to his radio gig, where he was excellent.

Anonymous said...

I haven't watched ESPN in over a year unfortunately that might change with NASCAR. If ESPN would just stop trying to be overly political correct (Brad Daughtery as a nascar analyst).

Anonymous said...

Brad D actually OWNED a Busch Team folks.

Who cares about Nascar Now. It's all about the race coverage - which is downright great.